2017 NBA Power Rankings: Midseason Update

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2017

2017 NBA Power Rankings: Midseason Update

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    In this week's NBA Power Rankings, we're leaning on recent play to reflect what's really going on with the league's ever-shifting hierarchy.

    Several teams near the top have fallen on hard times, and a few opportunistic up-and-comers have played well enough over the last few weeks to deserve prime positioning. Don't get too bent out of shape seeing these upstarts, like the Washington Wizards, occupying rarefied space atop the rankings. This isn't a definitive take on where these teams will finish the season.

    It's a reflection of how well each team is playing right now.

    And some of the mainstays, like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, just haven't been any good lately.

    Rankings are based on record, advanced metrics and gut feeling—with recent exploits counting for more than season-long performance. Health is a factor as well. Losing a star to injury or reinserting a recovered player makes a team's prior statistics less relevant.

    That's why Chris Paul going down hurts the Los Angeles Clippers yet again.

30. Brooklyn Nets

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    ←→ No Movement

    For the most part, the Brooklyn Nets have had the right idea this year. It's been the execution that has fallen short. They shoot loads of three-pointers, push the pace and play the kind of high-efficiency offense you'd expect from a good team—minus the results.

    On the rare occasion things click, you get the 143-point deluge the Nets hung on the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 20, which gave Brooklyn its only win of the week, month and calendar year.

    Otherwise, the Nets have been so bad that the Los Angeles Lakers' 49-point loss (a franchise record) didn't raise the slightest possibility of the Lakers slipping to the No. 30 spot.

    Brooklyn is 1-12 since Jan. 1 and owns every other marker you could possibly want in a team bringing up the rear of these rankings: worst net rating, fewest wins, least hope and so on...

29. Los Angeles Lakers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    The Lakers took it to the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 20, snapping a five-game losing streak just before starting another one—with that dispiriting 49-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks two days later.

    D'Angelo Russell's sprained MCL and calf strain will cost him another week or two, but at least he and Brandon Ingram earned spots on the Rising Stars roster for All-Star Weekend. That's a positive sign for a team trying to develop its youth.

    The tricky tank job ahead will complicate those efforts, as the Lakers must do everything they can to finish with one of the bottom three records. Anything higher than that, and they'll lose their 2017 first-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers and their 2019 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic. Keeping this year's pick will result in an unprotected 2018 first going to the Sixers—painful, but better than losing a pair of lottery tickets.

    It's hard to know how a deliberate losing effort will impact a roster still in its formative stages, but the risk of promoting bad habits will be high.

28. Orlando Magic

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    Despite being 18-29 and owning the third-worst net rating in the league since Dec. 1, the Orlando Magic are still consumed by the same win-now mandate that has produced a series of inadvisable trades and ill-conceived lineup decisions.

    "We have to go into the trade deadline looking to improve the team by any means necessary," Magic general manager Rob Hennigan told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.

    Oh good! Maybe they can sell off more picks and young talent (Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo) for aging free agents like Serge Ibaka. What about deepening the positional glut up front that keeps Aaron Gordon from seeing time at the 4?

    Sounds good, right?

    Orlando stays on brand as a shortsighted outfit that refuses to operate deliberately, even when the short-term upside is a low playoff seed and an unceremonious first-round exit.

    The Magic went 1-2 this week and are 3-10 in January.

27. New York Knicks

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    The New York Knicks won a game this week, beating the Pacers on Monday, which is enough for upward movement at this low level of the rankings. Victory aside, it's bleak in New York.

    The defense ranks 25th in the league. Management's failed efforts to move Carmelo Anthony for Kevin Love leaked, per ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Chris Haynes. The "my turn, your turn" offensive style of Anthony and Derrick Rose is marginalizing Kristaps Porzingis. And Joakim Noah shot the ugliest free throw you'll ever see.

    Rough, right?

    Here's something positive for a team in a tailspin: Porzingis, who we've established isn't playing a big enough role, is one of two players with at least 75 blocks and 75 made triples this year. Kevin Durant is the other.

    Imagine if New York featured him more.

26. Miami Heat

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Miami Heat's modest ascension is purely a space issue. The teams immediately above them either had fine weeks in their own right or weren't quite bad enough to fall all the way to the bottom five.

    Thanks mostly to Dion Waiters, Miami went 3-0 this week to run its season-best winning streak to five. Waiters scored 33 points against the Milwaukee Bucks, recorded another 33 (plus a game-winner) versus the Warriors and then churned out 14 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter of a win over the Nets.

    "It's a very fascinating fine line of will, of pride, of borderline irrational confidence," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters about Waiters' mental makeup. "But guys that can create shots against committed defense at the end of the game ... that's almost a requirement."

    Waiters Island has never been a more delightful locale.

    Tied for the third-fewest wins in the league, we can still justify keeping the Heat in the lower reaches. But another big week from Waiters, and the Heat will force a rankings jump over a handful of Western Conference teams within sniffing distance of a playoff spot.

    Somebody should tell Miami it's tanking wrong.

25. Phoenix Suns

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    ←→ No Movement

    Quietly, the Phoenix Suns have been respectable this month.

    Tyson Chandler is playing his best ball of the season in January, tallying eight games with at least 15 rebounds and shooting a healthy 67.6 percent from the field. Devin Booker's efficiency comes and goes, but he's scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games.

    And Eric Bledsoe might be having the best season no one's talking about. One of five players averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists (the other four are MVP candidates), he posted a career-high 40 points in a stunning win over the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. By adding 13 assists to his stat line in that one, he became the first Suns player to go for at least 40 points and 10 dimes in more than a decade.

    If Andrew Wiggins hadn't drilled a tough game-winner over P.J. Tucker on Tuesday, the Suns would have finished this week with a stellar 3-1 mark. Either way, they're poking around the fray for the No. 8 spot in the West with a half-dozen other teams.

    This latest stretch suggests they might stick around and fight for a while.

24. Detroit Pistons

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    This is a tough drop for the Detroit Pistons, who still feel like a team that ought to be comfortably among the league's top half. Things have looked bleak at times this year, and a good example of why presented itself this past week.

    Following Marcus Morris' spirit-lifting tip-in winner against the Washington Wizards, Detroit blew an early lead and fell to a Sacramento Kings team that had lost its last five in a row. It's been one step forward and (at least) one step back all season for these guys.

    An easy schedule lies ahead, as five of the Piston's next seven opponents have records under .500. With Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returning to the lineup against the Kings following four games off to rest a sore shoulder, Detroit will also be healthy for that pivotal stretch.

    Hopefully, the reserves are up to the task.

    "If you look at the plus-minuses, as bad as it was with four of our starters, we were plus with them," head coach Stan Van Gundy observed after the Sacramento loss. "Our bench got crushed."

23. Dallas Mavericks

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    A 49-point win does wonders for a weekly net rating, and the Mavs sit atop the heap with a plus-12.5 since Jan. 20.

    Since moving Seth Curry into the starting lineup Jan. 12, Dallas is 5-3, and the 26-year-old point guard has averaged 14 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting from long distance. He's not Steph, but he's sure been helpful.

    The story's the same here as it's been all year: If Dallas has most of its bodies healthy, it profiles as a borderline playoff team that should win roughly as often as it loses. Keeping everyone fit remains the challenge. Before contemplating a bigger climb, let's see how Andrew Bogut fares now that he's returned from six games off to rest a sore hamstring.

22. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Good for you, Minnesota Timberwolves!

    You go all year blowing leads large and small, and then you get a taste of success in a close game for the first time...and it turns out you really like it.

    The Wolves won their first game by three points or fewer Jan. 19 against the Clippers and then won two more such games over the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns (thanks to an Andrew Wiggins game-winner). To summarize: That's 42 straight games without a close win followed by three straight—which is a franchise record, by the way.

    Maybe the NBA is just weird, but what if this is a sign the baby Wolves are growing up?

    Karl-Anthony Towns has been monstrous of late, hitting the Nuggets for 32 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and four blocks. No Minnesota player has ever posted those totals in a single game, and maybe you forgot, but Kevin Garnett used to play there.

21. New Orleans Pelicans

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    ↓ 5 Spots

    You can't give up 143 points to the Nets and hold your position in the rankings. That's Rule No. 438(b)(7)(ix)...or maybe it's No. 438(c)(9)(ii). Either way, it's a firm precept, and the Pels have to slide.

    Which is kind of a shame, because they'd been pretty good up until that brutal Jan. 20 defeat.

    Per Justin Verrier of ESPN.com: "In the 11 games leading up to Friday’s meltdown, New Orleans was 6-5 with a defense that regularly switches positions 1-4 allowing just 99 points per 100 possessions—by far the best in the league in both the three-week sample and if extrapolated over a full season."

    The other factor hurting the Pels this week is the recurrence of Anthony Davis' quad injury. He played just 16 minutes in Wednesday's 114-105 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder and sat out a shocking 124-122 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers two days prior. If he's not right, the Pelicans are in deep trouble.

    About that win over Cleveland...

    Maybe it feels like beating the reigning champs warrants gentler rankings treatment, but the Cavs have been mailing it in lately. And if you think Terrence Jones and Jrue Holiday are going to combine for 69 points again, good luck to you.

20. Sacramento Kings

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The first week without Rudy Gay (ruptured Achilles) went better than expected, as the Kings went 2-2 on the road and secured an overtime victory against a Cavs team that should have been motivated following LeBron James' public criticism.

    Rookie Malachi Richardson has coaxed a few minutes out of head coach Dave Joerger's inscrutable rotation decisions, and he's looked remarkably smooth. He played in all four games this past week, and his silky 12 points against the Cavs were a real factor in the outcome. Self-assured and gifted with a quick and easy release on his jumper, Richardson deserves a much longer look.

    "Confidence is growing, doesn't seem rattled at all. At this rate, Kings might have finally found their SG," Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee tweeted.

    Second-year big man Willie Cauley-Stein has also seen an uptick in playing time, and he produced eight points and 10 rebounds in the Cleveland win. If he's shaken his spaciness for good, he can be a weapon on both ends. 

    "It's my only goal this season. My only goal," DeMarcus Cousins told reporters of his playoff aspirations. If he achieves it, the kids in Sacramento might wind up being a big reason why.

19. Portland Trail Blazers

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    After a 2-1 week, punctuated by an impressive road trip-ending overtime win at the Boston Celtics on Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers look steadier than they did last week. At that time, a four-game losing streak against East foes had dumped them all the way to 18-27 on the year.

    The Blazers are up to 20-27 now, and Damian Lillard pointed to the win in Boston as a pivotal point in his team's season, per Joe Freeman of the Oregonian"Things get bad sometimes in an NBA season. It's a long season and we've had it pretty bad. Sometimes it goes that way -- and coach talked about it earlier -- and then it just clicks. Sometimes you've got to go through it and it just turns and you figure it out. I think this was a great opportunity. Because it shows some resilience by us."

    A win's fine, but Portland's real encouragement is that it allowed just 98.5 points per 100 possessions this past week.

    Scoring and resilience and success against talented teams are great qualities. But until the Blazers play half-decent defense consistently, they're going nowhere.

18. Indiana Pacers

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    ↓ 4 Spots

    Everything's great in Indy this week, you guys!

    Minus the three-game losing streak (which included defeats at the mighty hands of the Knicks and Lakers), the booing from a disgruntled home crowd and Paul George's miffed response.

    "They pay their money, their hard-earned money to watch us play," he told reporters at Tuesday's practice, the morning after the loss to New York. "They got the right to do whatever they want. It doesn’t hurt me. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. Just know we work harder off of cheers than boos."

    Indiana has been profoundly inconsistent this season, but when it won six of its first seven January games, it looked like the potent, George-led outfit many envisioned was finally materializing. George remains productive, but the Pacers still have a bottom-half offensive rating. Without the stout defense that defined them in years past, they're stuck in the grip of mediocrity.

    And the fans don't seem to be cool with that.

17. Denver Nuggets

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    ↑ 2 Spots

    Nikola Jokic became the Denver Nuggets' full-time starting center Dec. 15, and all they've done since that change is post the second-best offense in the league. As the sample grows and Jokic's pinpoint give-and-go deliveries continue to fuel an unstoppable scoring attack, it's becoming undeniable: He's one of the best offensive players in the NBA.

    Jokic has made at least 50 percent of his shots in 10 straight games, and he's not a center who lives on point-blank setups. He's hitting from the perimeter, deftly tossing in floaters and generating his own looks. And he's a better passer than he is a scorer.

    As a result of Jokic's ascent, Denver is shopping Jusuf Nurkic, according to Marc Stein. Nurkic is a young big man most teams would kill to have as their top frontcourt development project. If he returns a power forward who can offset Jokic's defensive weaknesses, the Nuggets could gain the inside track on that eighth playoff spot in the West.

    Failing that, they may just score their way to the postseason anyway.

16. Milwaukee Bucks

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    ↓ 3 Spots

    Defense continues to short-circuit the Milwaukee Bucks' plans lately. They lost three of four this week and surrendered 114 points in their only win, an admittedly impressive defeat of the Houston Rockets on Monday.

    Jabari Parker was unstoppable as a scorer and facilitator in that one, and he has responded well to his one-game demotion from the starting lineup. He posted 28 points and seven assists in the win over the Rockets, torturing slower forwards with his handle and whipping smart passes to cutters when help defenders left their assignments to corral him.

    Though the Bucks must find ways to channel their length and athleticism into steadier D, the offensive potential of Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo means postseason hope won't be fully extinguished—no matter how shoddy the defense is.

    Miles Plumlee's roll game is another useful weapon in the starting lineup, as he offers a lob threat John Henson never did. If Khris Middleton really does return before the All-Star break, Milwaukee will have one of the scariest offenses out there.

15. Chicago Bulls

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    ←→ No Movement

    Dwyane Wade doesn't seem optimistic these days.

    "I think you see certain teams throughout a year can get better and you see certain teams -- you will see it. You can tell that it's just who they are," he told Nick Friedell of ESPN.com. "I've been on both. I've been on teams that it's just who you are and you deal with it for the whole year. And some teams you get better as the years go on. Right now we are who we are."

    Neither does Jimmy Butler.

    "We don't play hard enough," Butler said, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "This is your job. I want to play with guys who care." 

    Johnson also reports that Nikola Mirotic and Michael Carter-Williams were among the targets of Wade and Butler's comments.

    And then Rajon Rondo delivered a scathing retort that put him firmly on a side opposing Wade and Butler's views.

    Chicago managed to go 2-2 amid the turmoil, but I know where I'll be looking first as the Feb. 23 trade deadline draws closer.

14. Philadelphia 76ers

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    Joel Embiid won Eastern Conference Player of the Week just in time to go down for three games with a bruised knee. And in a performance that'll put a ding in the whole "The Philadelphia 76ers are nothing without their star rookie" narrative, his teammates won two out of three without him.

    Since Jan. 1, Philadelphia is 9-3 and owns the NBA's top defensive rating.

    This is not a drill.

    Nerlens Noel scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in Wednesday's win over the Bucks, and Richaun Holmes put up 18 points in a Tuesday triumph against the Los Angeles Clippers. Jahlil Okafor's knee kept him sidelined in four of the Sixers' last five games, and it hasn't even mattered.

    Raise the cat, people. The 76ers have cracked the top half of our rankings. What a time to be alive.

13. Charlotte Hornets

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    ↑ 4 Spots

    Maybe this makes me a Charlotte Hornets apologist, but I'm calling a 2-2 week with losses against the best team in the league and the hottest team in the East a success.

    Charlotte snapped a three-game winning streak by dropping contests against the Wizards and Warriors—but the Hornets were highly competitive in both defeats.

    This is still a team with the league's ninth-best net rating, second-lowest turnover percentage and second-highest defensive rebounding rate. The overall numbers make a No. 13 ranking justifiable, even if the last month or so inspires less confidence.

    Nicolas Batum's failure to replicate last season's career-best performance is easy to blame for Charlotte's 23-23 record. He hasn't been nearly as dynamic a scorer, and his remarkable ability to hit threes coming off screens and handoffs has all but disappeared. He's averaging more assists, rebounds and free-throw attempts than last year, but his three-point percentage is down to 32.5 percent.

    Kemba Walker's step forward hasn't been enough to offset Batum's long-distance decline.

    I still have faith in the Hornets, and it's going to take another hefty losing streak before they slip into the bottom half again.

12. Los Angeles Clippers

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    ↓ 2 Spots

    There's far less shame in losing to the Sixers than there used to be, but the Clippers can't be encouraged by their performance in a 121-110 loss to Philly on Tuesday. Blake Griffin produced solid numbers (12 points, 11 rebounds and five assists) but shot 3-of-11 in his first game back from knee surgery as a Joel Embiid-less Sixers team turned a fourth-quarter tie into an 11-point win.

    The Clips have survived without Chris Paul before, memorably going 12-6 in an 18-game span he missed during the 2013-14 season. Maybe that'll give them confidence between now and mid-to-late March as they play without CP3. Then again, that was several surgeries ago for Griffin, who may not be physically capable of picking up that kind of slack anymore. 

    At the very least, there'll be an adjustment period.

    "I was sloppy, rusty," Griffin told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "I felt like I had some really stupid turnovers. I probably would’ve liked to attack more, especially late in the shot clock. A couple times I settled for jumpers. But I felt fine. Timing and rhythm for sure was the biggest thing."

    A 115-105 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday—without Paul and Griffin—was big, as every victory the Clippers amass means a little more now. Success is going to be hard to come by, especially with an upcoming schedule that includes the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors three times in the next three weeks.

    Losers in three of their last four, the Clippers face a rough road ahead.

11. Memphis Grizzlies

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    The Memphis Grizzlies have been a below-.500 team over the last six weeks, but it's hard to focus on that when Marc Gasol is scoring a career-high 42 points and Vince Carter is hitting contested 360-degree layups on the eve of his 40th birthday. Both happened during Wednesday's 101-99 win over the Toronto Raptors.

    The Grizzlies have an uncanny ability to convince you they're not that good and then do something spectacular. At this point, I'm certain they're just messing with all of us.

    "Tonight was something special. It got to the point where everybody was just trying to get him the ball," Mike Conley told reporters of Gasol's huge scoring effort.

    This isn't the kind of thing you'd expect to hear about a big man who'd never averaged more than 18 points a game until this season. But Gasol's reinvention as a high-volume scorer (averaging 20.6 points per game) has upended most norms in Memphis.

    The Grizz gain a spot after a 2-1 week marked by their customarily inexplicable feats.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    All this maniacally angry play and all these triple-doubles sure make it seem like Russell Westbrook is pissed about not getting voted in as an All-Star starter.

    Except...how could you really tell? Saying he seems more possessed now is sort of like noticing the surface temperature of the sun is a few degrees hotter than usual. At 5,778 Kelvin, it's hard to notice the difference.

    Russ has been doing this scorched-earth stat-stuffing all season. Plus, he says he doesn't care about not earning the first-unit nod: "That's the nature of the business, the game. I just play. I don't play for All-Star bids. I play to win championships, and every night I compete at a high level, and it'll work out."

    He's on a run of three straight triple-doubles, and his 38-10-10 line in a 97-95 win in Utah on Monday gave the Oklahoma City Thunder their best win in weeks.

    Enes Kanter was dominating off the bench (and dunking on people), which makes the forearm fracture he suffered punching a chair Thursday a brutal blow. He could miss two months, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical.  

    Steven Adams posted 20 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and three assists in his second game back from the league's concussion protocol in a Wednesday win, so Westbrook is still getting some of the help he needs.

    OKC went 3-0 this week.

9. Toronto Raptors

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    ↓ 6 Spots

    Five straight defeats earns the Toronto Raptors the longest active losing streak in the league and the biggest one-week drop of their season.

    So, what gives?

    Once on a historic offensive pace, the Raps' scoring efficiency has dipped. They rank 10th in offensive rating since Jan. 1, but it's the defense that has really sunk them. In that same span, they've allowed 109.4 points per 100 possessions, good for 22nd in the NBA. And that's with DeMar DeRozan, a suspect stopper, missing time.

    Head coach Dwane Casey at least appreciates the unsatisfied mood of his players, telling Ryan Wolstat of the National Post: "It’s edgy, which it should be. I don’t want guys to be happy losing. Hopefully we’re setting a standard of expectations that you don’t lose three, four, five, six, whatever it is."

    Toronto closes out January with three games at home. It'll need to take all three to post a winning month.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    LeBron James thinks his team is thin and needs another playmaker, but the Cavs' real problem is a dearth of defensive intensity and overall focus.

    Cleveland is in the midst of its worst stretch this year, having lost three straight and six of eight. Its most recent stumble against the Kings on Wednesday lacked any of the urgency you'd expect from a team that had just been called out by its leader.

    The Cavs' net rating is now just seventh best in the league, and its defense has fallen all the way to 17th.

    As James continues to shoulder an increasingly large load, trying to lead by example, he's being taxed to a dangerous degree. For all the viable concerns about playmaking, depth, defense and urgency, nothing matters more than making sure he's in top form when the Cavs inevitably reach the Finals.

    This seems like a good time to mention that James, after averaging 41.6 minutes per game in his last five outings, leads the league in that category with 37.6.

    Already carrying more miles on his odometer than any player his age ever has, James can't be expected to keep this up. Not in his 14th NBA season, and not for another deep playoff run.

    Head coach Tyronn Lue has to address this.

7. Atlanta Hawks

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    ↑ 1 Spot

    Maybe the Cavs can fix their season by trading Kyle Korver.

    It sounds a little too easy, but it sure worked for the Atlanta Hawks, who are 8-3 since moving their veteran sharpshooter in a deal that was supposed to portend a rebuild.

    Instead, Atlanta has leaned on its defense, trusted in Paul Millsap to keep doing all the little things and watched happily as Dwight Howard cleans the glass without irritating the locker room—as far as we know.

    Speed seems to be a key for the Hawks, who cranked up the pace in overcoming a 10-point deficit in the last 3:00 to beat the Bulls on Wednesday.

    "We were playing super fast," Kent Bazemore told Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We had guys flying around. It’s fun when you are playing that way because they are scrambling trying to find us ... If we could play like that for 48 minutes, or a big chunk of it, we are a very dangerous team."

    A little more zip on offense goes nicely with the league's No. 5 defense.

6. Houston Rockets

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    Losers in three of their last four, the Houston Rockets are cooling down after a hot stretch had them looking like a real challenger for the second seed in the West. Whether that's still possible remains to be seen, but a decisive 125-108 loss to the Warriors on Jan. 20 made something else abundantly clear.

    Houston isn't ready to challenge the big boys.

    Yes, the Rockets beat Golden State earlier this season, but as the Warriors have developed chemistry and flow, they've morphed into something different. There's a gap in the West between true contenders and everyone else, and the Rockets are on the wrong side of it right now.

    Fun fact: James Harden has thrown over 500 more passes than anyone else this season.

    He has the ball a lot.

5. Boston Celtics

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    ↓ 1 Spot

    "We know we have (toughness)," Isaiah Thomas told reporters after a grimy win against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. "It's just a matter of doing it. And I think tonight we just played like we're capable of playing on both ends of the floor. I think the next step with this team, we just have to be more consistent at doing that and building that identity."

    Head coach Brad Stevens has been asking for force on defense all year, and though the Celtics allowed the Rockets to score 109 points, they also registered 10 steals and upped the physicality. If that approach persists, maybe Boston can start nudging that No. 22 defense back up to the top-five territory it occupied last year.

    The Celtics will need more than one well-fought win against the Rockets to earn the benefit of the doubt. Leading into that game, they surrendered an average of 122 points in their previous three contests, all three of which were losses.

    Hence the rankings slippage.

4. Washington Wizards

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    ↑ 5 Spots

    Life is good for the Washington Wizards, who are 12-4 since Christmas and haven't lost at home since Dec. 6.

    If not for the last-second Marcus Morris tip-in that resulted in Saturday's 113-112 loss to the Pistons, Washington would be on a seven-game winning streak.

    John Wall remains the catalyst. He's leading the league in steals per game, shooting a career-best 49.8 percent from two-point range and averaging 23.1 points per game after never cracking the 20-point barrier in any prior season. He should be starting the All-Star Game. Full stop.

    Bradley Beal broke out of a brutal slump of 20 straight missed threes this week, and Otto Porter continues to lead the league in three-point accuracy (45.6 percent). With those two spacing the floor and Wall using his uncanny vision to find them, the Wizards are nearly impossible to stop.

    When sharing the court, those three produce a 110.9 offensive rating and outscore opponents by nine points per 100 possessions.

    Is Washington going to finish as the fourth-best team in the NBA? Can it hold this lofty spot for another week? No and probably not.

    But it's playing better than everyone outside the top three right now, and that's what matters.

3. Utah Jazz

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    ↑ 3 Spots

    The Utah Jazz haven't been world-beaters lately, but they're not so far removed from a six-game winning streak that ended Monday. And it's easy to rationalize a pair of losses, one that came via a Russell Westbrook game-winner and another in Denver on the second night of a back-to-back set.

    Boasting a 15-3 record in games when both Gordon Hayward and George Hill play, Utah's only clear weakness remains health. And with Alec Burks returning to the fold (and showing an athletic burst nobody else on the roster can touch), the Jazz are as close to whole as they've been all season.

    Rudy Gobert continues to beast, and his 27-point, 25-rebound effort against the Mavs on Jan. 20 stood out as the best example yet that he's developing into a force on both ends. 

    With virtually everyone else in last week's top seven going through some kind of slump, the Jazz climb.

2. San Antonio Spurs

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    San Antonio Spurs Greatness Immunity, or SSGI, afflicts millions of NBA fans every year, preventing them from appreciating the organization's unparalleled brilliance. There is no known cure for SSGI, but it is treatable—and the best remedy is slowing down to appreciate weeks like this one.

    The Spurs knocked off the Cavs in overtime on Saturday behind 41 points from Kawhi Leonard. Then, after beating the Brooklyn Nets with half a roster, they downed the Raptors in Toronto on the second night of a back-to-back set...without Leonard, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker.

    The Raps have been slipping and didn't have DeMar DeRozan, but that's still absurd. Wins like that shouldn't happen, and yet they do, consistently, for the Spurs. No wonder we've struggled with SSGI for 20 years.

    In a season of overlooked San Antonio storylines, Leonard's scoring explosion stands out. Per Micah Adams of ESPN.com: "He's averaging more than 25 PPG with a usage rate over 30, something no Spurs player has done under Gregg Popovich, all while leading San Antonio to the second-best record in the NBA. If it was in progress (or legitimately questioned) before, Leonard's evolution into a legitimate No. 1 offensive option capable of taking over games appears complete."

    Side effects of treatment for SSGI include wide eyes, involuntary gasps, appreciative nodding and realizations that the race for the top seed in the West is far from over.

1. Golden State Warriors

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    This may be an unpopular stance, but I have not yet reached the point where I'm comfortable allowing Dion Waiters game-winners to affect the top spot in these power rankings. So although the Warriors lost this week and the Spurs didn't, there won't be a 1-2 swap.

    Waiters-related aversions aside, this isn't a hard choice to defend.

    Golden State has the best offensive, defensive and (duh) net rating in the league. It still has more wins than anyone else. It still has the fewest losses.

    And it still has Kevin Durant averaging 26.2 points on 54.3 percent shooting, which is, you know, not remotely fair.

    Worse still for the rest of the league, the Warriors actually got some rare reps in close games and performed well. Before Waiters sank them, they fought back from a 10-point deficit in the final 3:00 against Miami. And a fourth-quarter surge fueled by the not-so-deadly (so far) Death Lineup put them over the top against the Hornets on Wednesday.

    The last thing opponents need is the Warriors getting their remade roster comfortable in high-leverage situations.

    San Antonio remains two games back in the loss column and refuses to quit, but the Warriors are still a cut above.


    Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Thursday, Jan. 26.


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